Spiritual Transformation and Non-Violent Action
Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., each in his own time and place, altered the course of their societies through actions of militant nonviolent resistance in behalf of marginalized groups. Gandhi’s primary work was in India, between 1915 and his assassination in 1930. King’s activity was chiefly but not exclusively in the Southeastern United States between 1955 and his assassination in 1968. Gandhi was a Hindu, who on occasion criticized Jesus for not showing love for nonhuman life but who also expressed admiration for Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which he said “went straight to my heart” (2). King was a Baptist Christian, who said his movement was an expression of Christ’s love, specifically as it was stated in that same Sermon on the Mount. King also affirmed that the method of this love was provided by Gandhi (3).
I do not present here a scholarly analysis of Gandhi and King. Rather, I offer an interpretation of their nonviolent movements as ventures for reforming society that are rooted in altruism and spiritual transformation. My entree to the theme is Erik Erikson’s psychobiographical and psychohistorical work, Gandhi’s Truth: On the Origins of Militant Nonviolence. I make no claim to represent the intuitions or self-understanding of either Gandhi or King. Rather, I offer a proposal for understanding their significance, focusing on five areas of concern:
Clarifying the terms passive resistance, nonviolent resistance and militant nonviolence
Militant nonviolence as a process of double conversion
Militant nonviolence as a process of spiritual transformation
The larger human significance of militant nonviolence
Militant nonviolence as a process of love and altruism
I. The Terminology
The idea on which I focus is the name Gandhi chose for his way of life and action-the Sanskritic combination, Satyagraha. Literally, this translates into English as “truth force” (4). Gandhi himself entitled his autobiography “My Experiments with the Truth.” Although no English term conveys the richness of the original’s spiritual courage. Erikson suggests the term “leverage of truth.” He writes:
“I want to suggest the skillful use of a sensitive instrument. For it must be obvious that is the challenge of our generation to understand what Gandhi calls truth as an actual force in mental life, the kind of force that ‘moves mountains.’ [Lever is a technological term]…. Satyagraha did have its origins in a technological imagery in which the body was still part of the truth; and it will be seen that even today the more direct uses of Satyagraha always include the body and the meeting of bodies: the facing of the opponent “eye to eye,” the linking of arms in defensive and advancing phalanxes, the body “on the line”: all these confrontations symbolize the conviction that the solidarity of unarmed bodies remains a leverage and a measure even against the cold and mechanized gadgetry of the modern state” (5).
“The force of mental life that moves mountains”-this is the idea. Erikson’s focus on bodies is echoed in Martin Luther King’s description of the March on Washington that he planned for later in 1968. He describes how 100 poor people from Mississippi will begin protests in Washington. Another 2,900 poor people, from fifteen different areas will join them. They will begin with the 100 people from Mississippi, he writes,
[This group] “begins walking. They would flow across the South, joining the Alabama group, the Georgia group, right on up through South and North Carolina and Virginia. We hope that the sound and sight of a growing mass of poor people walking slowly toward Washington will have a positive, dramatic effect on Congress. We believe there will be spontaneous supporting activity taking place across the country” (6). “The sound and sight of people walking”-the force of mental life that moves mountains-that is Satyagraha.
Gandhi and others also used the term passive resistance, but this hardly expresses what is at stake. King preferred the term nonviolent resistance. Gandhi and King both wrote that militant nonviolence is the response of strong men and women, not weak ones; it is not for cowards. Nonviolent resistance is contrasted to acquiescence and violence, as a third alternative (7).
Keeping in mind Erikson’s point, that Satyagraha is mental truth, but that it moves mountains and involves putting one’s body on the line, I will most often use the term militant nonviolence, as well as Martin Luther King’s preferred term, nonviolent resistance. However, in order to remind us of the deep original etymology, I will also refer to Satyagraha.
II. Militant Nonviolent Process and “Double Conversion”
The Satyagraha way is described by Erikson as that of a “double conversion.” By double conversion Erikson means that in the militant nonviolent encounter, the marginalized person:
“by containing his egotistic hate and by learning to love the opponent as human, will confront the opponent with an enveloping technique that will force, or rather permit, him to regain his latent capacity to trust and to love. In all these varieties of confrontation, the emphasis is not so much (or not entirely) on the power to be gained as on the cure of an unbearable inner condition. [Gandhi was ready to] die in the pursuit of their conviction that there are ills in the human condition which an insightful person must not tolerate. Gandhi could sympathize with proud and violent youth; but he believed that violence breeds violence from generation to generation and that only the combined insight and discipline of Satyagraha can really disarm us, or give us a power stronger than arms” (8).
If we were to put a Kantian rhetorical spin to this idea of double conversion, it might be this: “So act in a confrontation as to elicit the best self of the other.”
III. Five Stages of Satyagraha
Double conversion actualizes itself in a process of five stages. I derive these stages from Erikson’s analysis of Gandhi’s action against mill owners, in behalf of mill workers, in Ahmedabad in February and March 1918. The issue was a living wage for the workers. This engagement was successfully concluded, even though Gandhi himself was ambivalent about its results.
Stage One: Engagement grounded in empathy. Gandhi did not wait for the mill owners to make the first move, so that he could resist positively. Rather, he “moved right in on his opponent by announcing what the grievance was and what action he intended” (9).
Gandhi had done his homework ahead of time. He told the workers to keep their demands fair, but then to be prepared to die rather than accept less than a fair wage. He argued that the mill owners and the mill workers possessed equal assets-money and equipment on the one side, capacity to work on the other. He thus established a situation of equality; neither side could act paternalistically or as dominator. Here Gandhi promotes what Ronald Green calls a “generic humanity” (10) that encompasses both owners and workers. Sharing this common humanity, Gandhi set the stage for a potential relationship of empathy between the two. Green holds that moral behavior is impossible except within such a context of empathy.
Stage Two: Eliminate bad conscience and moralism. In this context of common human identity Gandhi established what we might call a level playing field. He prohibited either side from threatening or maligning the other. He insisted that the bad practices and errors of the owners lay in their misunderstanding of their own self-interest, namely in their failure to recognize the mutual obligations and functions of employer and worker. Thereby he appealed to their better selves and demonstrated that he trusted the owners to act on a better understanding (11).
Stage Three: Accept suffering. The “truth force” which is Satyagraha recognizes that trust in the opponent may be misplaced. Rather than acting as their best selves, the persons who are confronted may lash out violently. The Satyagrahi recognize this possibility and announce their willingness to suffer the consequences, even death.
Stage Five: Ritualization. The manner in which the militant nonviolent process is carried out does in fact construct a ritual of engagement. The character or ritual is made possible because the process is both public and clearly articulated. This public, ritual character intensifies the challenge to both parties-the confronting and the confronted. Although they do not know the outcome of the engagement, they know what the possible outcomes are, and they know the stages of the engagement in which they will be confronted. They also know what challenges they face and what is required of them if they are to meet the challenges: clarity of engagement, a level playing field, the willingness to suffer, the necessity for change-and the stakes: self-respect, integrity, or shame.
The import of ritualization extends further, however. Because the action is in a sense stereotyped, it can become a template for future ritual practice. To quote Erikson, if “truth” is carried by this instrument of leverage, “it can and must become actual in entirely different settings…. If truth is actuality, it can never consist of mere repetition of ritualized acts or stances. It calls for reconstitution” (13). Martin Luther King, Jr., forty years after Gandhi, did in fact engage in such reconstitution. Both men seemed to recognize, instinctively, that they were constructing rituals that could and should be reconstituted at other places and in other times. They and their followers were putting themselves at risk in particular situations for the benefit of specific opponents, but they were aware that their self-sacrifice was also reaching beyond the particular places where they stood.
IV. Spiritual Transformation
If we are to relate Gandhi and King to the process of spiritual transformation, we must adopt a working definition of this transformation. I suggest starting with the definition adopted by the Metanexus Institute’s Spiritual Transformation Scientific Research Program to guide its initial efforts. The working definition, in part: “dramatic changes in world and self views, purposes, religious beliefs, attitudes, and behavior” (14). An elaboration of this definition speaks of “profound changes” in the way people understand, approach, experience, and relate to whatever they hold as “sacred” (15).
Although these definitions are not necessarily authoritative, they offer a reasonable framework for discussion.
I suggest that Satyagraha, militant nonviolence, is a process of spiritual transformation. Erikson speaks of a double conversion; I speak of a double transformation, or perhaps better, a mutuality of transformation. Both the person confronting and the person being confronted undergo transformation.
Gandhi’s own spiritual transformation is a topic in itself. A few observations will suffice here. Gandhi’s ambition, according to Erikson, “was to personify a purified India and to overcome with the means of Satyagraha” the evils of India’s political and social system, without himself holding political office (16). He sought to liberate his country. In Erikson’s view, he may be a type of Homo religiosus, in that he knew himself, like a woman in the act of conception, to be birthing something new in which his own inner voice coincided with the movement of history (17). Erikson classifies Gandhi as a “religious actualist,” by which he means that the man internalized his Indian culture and its religious heritage and absorbed from it a conception of truth which he attempted to make actual for all of life (18). His religious depth lies in his awareness that he was walking the line between life and not-life. His offer to die, if need be, in order to usher in new life, might be taken up, with death for himself and his movement the result. In this definition of himself, Gandhi made transformation a requirement also for the followers, the Satyagrahi.
The vital core of Satyagraha, the very soul of its effort, is Ahimsa, “the readiness to get hurt and yet not to hurt” (19). Joan Bondurant writes, “the only dogma in the Gandhian philosophy centres here: that the only test of truth is action based on the refusal to do harm” (20). In the heat of the Ahmedabad struggle, Gandhi wrote to his followers, “that action alone is just which does not harm either party to a dispute” (21). Gandhi carried Ahimsa farther-not only must there be no harm done, there must be “respect for the truth” in the other. The essence of the other must not be violated (22). This is spiritual transformation.
Gandhi struggled with his own transformation, but he recognized that any militant nonviolent action would have to include spiritual direction for the participants as well. If the Satyagrahi were truly to participate in Truth, that truth “could not depend on individual impressions and decisions alone”; it has to be extraordinarily disciplined, with a “commitment to suffer the opponent’s anger without getting angry and yet also without ever submitting to any violent coercion by anyone” (23). This is the worldview into which Gandhi and his followers were transformed.
During the Ahmedabad action, Gandhi wrote leaflets to his followers, the mill workers, every day, and every evening he would gather them around him “under the famous babul tree on the banks of the Sabarmati outside the Shahpur gate” (24). He would arrive at 5 p.m. every day. These workers, always at least five thousand persons and sometimes closer to ten thousand, would walk two or three miles to meet Gandhi. These sessions of explanation and exhortation were sometimes religious in character. Gandhi required that the workers take a pledge with two provisions: not to resume work until they are granted a 35 percent increase, and “not to cause disturbance, resort to violence, indulge in looting, damage property, or abuse anyone, but remain peaceful” (25). The strikers would march through the streets shouting “Keep your pledge” and improvise songs. After two days, in light of the pledge to remain peaceful, the police withdrew from any special security measures at the site of these meetings.
Martin Luther King also recognized the need for spiritual transformation. He writes about the Montgomery boycott:
“In my weekly remarks as president of the resistance committee, I stressed that the use of violence in our struggle would be both impractical and immoral. To meet hate with retaliatory hate would do nothing but intensify the existence of evil in the universe. Hate begets hate, violence begets violence; toughness begets a greater toughness. We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love; we must meet physical force with soul force. Our aim must never be to defeat or humiliate the white man, but to win his friendship and understanding” (28).
First, spiritual resistance-“the nonviolent resister is spiritually aggressive, since “his mind and emotions are always active, constantly seeking to persuade his opponent that he is wrong.”
Second, militant nonviolence “does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent but to win his friendship and understanding. “The end is redemption and reconciliation.”
Third, the “attack is directed against forces of evil,” not persons. “We are out to defeat injustice and not white persons who may be unjust.”
Fourth, willingness to accept suffering without retaliation. Why not retaliate? Because “unearned suffering is redemptive.” The resister must realize that suffering has “tremendous educational and transformative possibilities.” He quotes Gandhi: “Things of fundamental importance to people are not secured by reason alone, but have to be purchased with their suffering.”
Fifth, internal violence of the spirit must be avoided as much as external physical violence.
Sixth, nonviolent resistance “is based on the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice.” In other words, a worldview, a metaphysics, if you will, is involved. He writes:
Transformation is required of the one who is confronted, as well, although this often cannot be tested except through behavior. The aim, Gandhi said, was actualization of a common humanity. King spoke of it as redeeming the opponent, reconciling with the opponent, and creating a blessed community of confronter and confronted. This transformation of the opponent does indeed happen on occasion. Behaviors do change. But transformation of purposes and attitudes often lags behind, as people are satisfied with minimal behavioral change.
V. The Larger Human Significance of Satyagraha
Erik Erikson offers tantalizing, much too brief suggestions concerning the larger human significance of Satyagraha. He questions how deeply aggressive violence is rooted in human nature and how manageable it is with techniques such as Gandhi’s. Is Satyagraha against nature? That is Erikson’s major question. He also asks related questions: Are aggression and killing instincts? Matters of passion and obsession? When does “natural” aggression turn into senseless murder? He finds resources in the thought of Freud, and also in the research of the ethologist Konrad Lorenz. Lorenz’s major work, On Aggression, appeared in English at approximately the same time as Erikson’s book on Gandhi (31).
In the work of ethologists, those who study the behavior of animals, Erikson finds evidence for aggression and killing as adaptive instincts, particularly between different species. He also finds many examples of nonhuman animals controlling their aggression. Erikson selects wolves and stags for special note, describing what he calls their “rituals of pacification” or their “ritualized disengagement” (32). These are rituals in which two animals confront each other, and engage in harmless wrestling until a victor emerges. The ritual includes the lover’s submission and the victor’s refusal to do harm to his opponent.
Erikson and Lorenz make the profound point that human violence often takes place when we in fact relate to the “others” as if they were a different species altogether. They use the term “pseudo speciation” in this connection, to describe:
Erikson’s suggestion is that Satyagraha is a ritual of pacification which “may derive some of its obvious strength from an evolutionary potential” that is illustrated in the rituals among animals that the ethologists record. Satyagraha constructs a revolutionary ritual that expresses pacification in ways appropriate to human beings and thus restores to humans “the dignity of nature” (34).
VI. Altruism and Love
Are altruism and love involved in the Satyagraha process? These questions deserve attention. Although I distinguish between the two ideas, they are often linked (35).
Altruism. I use the scientific definition of altruism: Altruism is behavior on my part that puts my welfare at risk in order to promote someone else’s welfare. Stephen Post, in his book, Unlimited Love, cites approvingly Daniel Batson’s definition of altruism: “a motivational state with the ultimate goal of increasing another’s welfare.” Post adds, that although “altruism does not necessarily involve self-sacrifice, it seems to be inherent in altruism to some degree” (36).
Ahimsa -the refusal to do harm and the imperative to benefit others, linked with the acceptance of suffering and the belief that unearned suffering is redemptive–is a central idea for Gandhi, and he interweaves this idea with love.. At times he invokes the teachings of Jesus, particularly in his insistence on universal and unconditional love. Gandhi writes: “The law of the survival of the fittest is the law for the evolution of the brute, but the law of self-sacrifice is the law of evolution for the man. . . . The basis of self-sacrifice is love. . . It is no non-violence if we love merely those that love us. It is non-violence only when we love those that hate us” (37).
Satyagraha is clearly a process of altruism, and an expansive one. Gandhi and King both acted in particular, concrete situations, relating to specific persons and projects. Both of them, however, recognized a larger context. Gandhi was epitomizing a “pure India.” He knew that his actions, such as the one in Ahmedabad, would be replicated and have influence elsewhere. King spoke of redeeming the white race as well as transforming Black America. His trips to India and Africa convinced him that his movement was benefiting people globally. Both men knew their movements had significance for subsequent generations. They spoke often of the value of non-violence for the children of the next generation. Violence would produce, in their view, a legacy of violence for the children, with dire consequences, whereas nonviolence could offer constructive possibilities for children.
Love. Gandhi does not write at length about love, but he does equate it with his central ideas of ahimsa and self-sacrifice. He understands it to be a law of life, “a higher law than that of destruction” (38). In contrast, King wrote extensively about love. He reiterates often that the Christian doctrine of love operated in his movement through the Gandhian method of nonviolence. He writes:
King was deeply influenced by the Swedish theologian Anders Nygren, whose monumental study, Agape and Eros, was published in English in 1953. Nygren argues that the New Testament concept of love, agape, is “the most powerful creative force in the universe. It is God’s love for humanity” (40). It “does not recognize value, but creates it” (41). Nygren’s work is still influential, even though it has been thoroughly criticized and its inadequacies revealed; some have argued that King misinterprets Nygren (42). Nevertheless, the Nygren-King concept of love is powerful, as evidenced in the following:
“Agape does not begin by discriminating between worthy and unworthy people, or any qualities people possess. It begins by loving others for their own sakes. It is an entirely “neighbor-regarding concern for others,” which discovers the neighbor in every man it meets. . . the best way . . . is to have love for the enemy-neighbor from whom you can expect no good in return, but only hostility and persecution. Another basic point about agape is that it springs from the need of the other person-his need for belonging to the best in the human family. The Negro must love the white man, because the white man needs his love to remove his tensions, insecurities, and fears. Agape means a recognition of the fact that all life is interrelated. All humanity is involved in a single process, and all men are brothers” (43).
“is insistence on community even when one seeks to break it. Agape is a willingness to go to any length to restore community. . . . The cross is the eternal expression of the length to which God will go in order to restore broken community. The resurrection is a symbol of God’s triumph over all the forces that seek to block community. The Holy Spirit is the continuing community creating reality that moves through history. He who works against community is working against the whole of creation. I can only close the gap in broken community by meeting hate with love” (44).
Today, violence is at the center of our attention as an American nation. We experience violence, we fear violence, and we threaten others with violence. We depict our enemies as a different species from ourselves, a species of evildoers. In these times, militant nonviolence as practiced by Gandhi and King is seldom recognized as an option. It has been rejected as naive, impractical, and unsuited to our world of high-tech weaponry (45). On the other hand, it has never been clearer that Gandhi and King were right in their judgment that violence is not eradicated by counter-violence. Violence breeds only more violence, and hatred only more hatred. They were also correct in their sense that the future of our children is threatened by such fostering of violence. They understood clearly that nonviolence cannot be left as a matter of individual conscience and practice; it must become the practice of groups and nations.
Our times do call for a reconstitution-not a repetition-of the rituals of militant nonviolence. In our present circumstances, it is a daunting challenge to imagine that all people share a common humanity and stand in relationships of empathy. We require new strategies, to be sure, and even more we require a spiritual transformation among us all, a genuine conversion. If we do not undergo transformation ourselves, we cannot expect our alleged “enemies” to be transformed.
With these thoughts, I pay tribute to Albert “Pete” Pero on the occasion of his retirement. He has devoted his life and professional career to the transforming vision of Satyagraha, not only among individuals, but also to the transformation of cultures. He has called it cultural transcendence, and he is surely right. God’s transcendent presence becomes actual in this transformation. It is a work of the Holy Spirit among us.
1 This paper will appear in Currents in Theology and Mission, August 2004
2 Erik Erikson, Gandhi’s Truth: On the Origins of Militant Nonviolence. New York: Norton, 1969, 151.
3 Martin Luther King, Jr., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. ed., James Melvin Washington. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1986, 17.
4 Erikson, 198.
5 Erikson, 198.
6 King, 66.
7 King, 25
8 Erikson, 437-8
9 Erikson, 454.
10 Ronald Green, Religion and Moral Theology: A New Method for Comparative Study. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1988. pp. 139-43.
11 Erikson, 434.
12 Erikson, 434-5.
13 Erikson, 436.
14 See the Program’s website: www.metanexus.net/spiritual_transformation. Click on “Request for proposals.”
16 Erikson, 224.
17 Erikson, 401.
18 Erikson, 396.
19 Erikson, 412.
20 Joan Bondurant, Conquest of Violence-The Gandhian Philosophy of Conflict. Rev. ed., Berkeley: Univ, of Calif. Press, 1965, 25.
21 Erikson, 342.
22 Erikson, 412.
23 Erikson, 416.
24 Erikson, 330.
25 Erikson, 332.
26 King, 12.
27 King, 17.
28 King, 17.
29 King, 17-18
30 King, 20.
31 Konrad Lorenz, On Aggression, trans., by M.K. Wilson. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1966. See Erikson, 423-36.
32 Erikson, 426.
33 Erikson, 431.
34 Erikson, 455.
35 See Emma Y. Post, “Profiles in Unlimited Love,” in Stephen Post, et al, eds. Research on Altruism and Love. Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation Press, 2003., pp. 199-203, 206-9.
36 Stephen Post, Unlimited Love: Altruism, Compassion, Service. Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation Press, 2003. p. 63.
37 The Essential Gandhi. Ed., Louis Fischer. New York: Vintage Books, 1962, pp. 89, 331.
38 M. K. Gandhi, Non-Violent resistance. New York: Schocken Books, 1951. pp. 383, 387.
39 King, 17.
40 King, 16.
42 See editor’s comments in King, 16; and Thomas Oord, “Religious Love at the Interface with Science,” in Post, et al, 216-9.
43 King, 219, 20
44 King, 20.
45 On the very day he was assassinated (January 30, 1948), Gandhi was asked by journalist Margaret Bourke-White how he would respond to the atom bomb. His response: “I will not go underground. I will not go into shelter. I will come out in the open and let the pilot see I have not a trace of ill-will against him. The pilot will not see our faces from his great height, I know. But the longing in our hearts-that he will not come to harm-would reach up to him and his eyes would be opened. If those thousands who were done to death in Hiroshima, if they had died with that prayerful action. . . their sacrifice would not have gone in vain. Non-violence is the only thing the atom bomb cannot destroy. Unless the world adopts non-violence, [the atom bomb] will spell certain suicide for mankind. . . .The moral to be legitimately drawn from the supreme tragedy of the bomb is that it will not be destroyed by counter-bombs even as violence cannot be by counter-violence. Mankind has to get out of violence only through non-violence. Hatred can be overcome only by love. We have to make truth and non-violence not matters for mere individual practice but for practice by groups and communities and nations.” The Essential Gandhi, 334-6.